'Reality check' needed to recognize diversity of families, UN Women report shows

A woman watches television with her family in Bangladesh. Photo by: M. Yousuf Tushar / World Fish / CC BY-NC-ND

UNITED NATIONS — Governments worldwide need a “reality check” on outdated policies that often fail to recognize the diversity of families, new findings by UN Women show.

New measures that would support paid parental leave, the care of children and elderly people, and family law reform are all essential to ensure women are empowered inside their homes, according to UN Women’s annual progress of the world’s women report, “Families in a Changing World.” The findings were released on Tuesday afternoon at U.N. Headquarters.  

“Families can be a make or break for women and girls, which means governments have a particular responsibility to safeguard women and girls’ rights, not only in the public sphere, but also in the home,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, said during a media briefing for the report’s launch. “However, in every region we are witnessing concerted efforts to deny women’s autonomy and the right to make their own decisions in the name of protecting family values.”

“We need to live with the reality of diversity of families.”

— Shahra Razavi, chief of research and data at UN Women

Globally, just over half of married women aged 25-54 are in the labor force, compared to 96% of married men, new data in the report shows. And women are doing three times as much unpaid care work as men, according to the report.

The global picture of families goes far beyond how they are often recognized officially: two parents with children. The report delivers a “reality check about the diversity of families today,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

“Though the experience of families is universal, families do not take one universal form, nor should they be expected to,” she explained.

Just 38% of families are couples with children, while 27% of households include extended family, according to the report’s data, which draws from public statistics collected in 86 countries. Another 13% of households are couple-only, and 13% are inhabited by just one person.

Worldwide, women are delaying marriage, divorcing more often, and increasingly cohabiting with a partner, as three-fourths of women aged 25-29 now do.  

“Family laws need to catch up with the reality. They need to make sure women in these kinds of relationship are guaranteed rights to child custody, to social protection and many other forms of rights,” Shahra Razavi, chief of research and data at UN Women, told reporters in the briefing.

For some women, families can serve as a dangerous space rife with discrimination and violence. In 2017, an estimated 58% of all female victims of intentional homicide were killed by a member of their own family, amounting to 137 women killed each day.

Some countries have expanded domestic violence laws in recent decades, Laura Turquet, manager of UN Women’s report, told Devex following the media briefing.

“Feminists have been very important in demanding that governments have as much responsibility for what happens in the private domain, as they do in the public domain. In the early 90s, there were only a handful of countries that had domestic violence laws, and now we have three-quarters of countries that have them,” Turquet explained.

But it is clear that in many cases, family laws have been slow to evolve.

In 13% of countries, for example, women still cannot pass their nationality to their children, creating practical problems for families that have migrated, or those that do not include a father.

The report also does not capture the entire scope of what it means to be a family. Same-sex couples are under-counted across countries because of stigmatization and complex legal environments, according to the report. In the 2016 Australian census, for example, same-sex couples accounted for only 0.9% of all couples cohabiting.

“One of the issues we see there is countries often do not collect the data [on LGBTQ families]. It is tricky, because it is one of those situations where even if you do ask the question, people might not reveal it,” Turquet explained.

In addition to the reform of family laws, greater public investment is needed in various family support systems, such as early childhood care.

UN Women suggests a package of reforms that would include parental leave, income support, pensions for women and men, high-quality health care, and services for pre-school children. The cost would range from 5%-10% of countries’ GDPs.

“Human rights principles do not define a particular form of family that is better or worse. The point of the report is saying that women’s rights, women’s choices, women’s voices need to be enabled, regardless of the types of families they live in. We need to live with the reality of diversity of families and really focus on the factors that enable women to enjoy their rights,” Razavi said.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.